First-Time Composter Learns to Deal with the Stink
December 4, 2020
I’ve been working at ecoRI News for a little over a year now. During my time here, I’ve written about pollution, land use, gentrification, and even visited a bug quarantine facility. I’ve learned a lot and try to practice what I preach by staying involved in local politics, supporting land conservation, and keeping reusable bags stashed in my car.
But the one thing I’ve been meaning to do and haven’t is compost. It’s intimidating. I live in a 600-square-foot apartment, and I’m a fanatic cook who cuts and peels vegetables with the dexterity of a Samurai; I leave lots of food scrap in my wake.
The prospect of filling a bucket with the dregs of my cutting board felt Sisyphean, or to put it in terms we all might better understand, like cars backing up on Interstate 95 during rush hour: a lot of stuff in a little amount of time.
But I decided I should give it a go. I got myself a bucket from the Barrington Farm School — the nonprofit founded by ecoRI News reporter Tim Faulkner accepts food scrap for compost — and got started.
The first week was great. With every eggshell and potato peel that I tossed into the bucket, and with every snap of the lid, I felt a renewed sense of purpose. I was doing the right thing!
Three weeks later, I was still cramming cabbage leaves, apple cores, and onion skins into the bucket. What surprised me was that it didn’t really smell. Sure, there were a few fruit flies that had made themselves at home in my kitchen, but all things considered, it wasn’t so bad.
Another week went by, and my boyfriend asked when I was going to empty the bucket. “It’s a bit … full,” he said, eyeing the lid that, by this point, was popping off.
A week later, I finally lugged the bucket into my car and over to the Barrington Farm School. The drive was uneventful, but as I made the turn onto Wampanoag Trail, the faint smell of rotting vegetables mixed with coffee grounds started to fill my car. I sped up, made a few more turns, and finally arrived.
Thankfully, no one was there to see me pop the lid on the bucket and dump the slimy, wretched mass of rotten organic matter into the “food scraps” bin. In finale, two cabbage leaves at the bottom flopped into the bin like gray, deflated lungs, and I quickly popped the lid back on my bin and high-tailed it out.
Back home, I rinsed the bucket with a hose and let it sit outside overnight with the lid off, thinking it would help rid the rotten-potato smell.
But the next day, it still stunk. We left a box of baking soda inside, scrubbed it with bleach, and even tried using Scrubbing Bubbles. Nothing worked.
Since then, while the bucket is in the kitchen, the lid is firmly on, and I’ve been afraid to even crack that baby open even a smidge.
What the heck happened? Why was my first effort so gosh darn stinky? Would I ever be able to compost again?
“There’s lots of things that can cause a bucket to smell,” Murphy wrote in an email. She went on to note that while there’s no surefire way to avoid every stench, there are ways to prevent too much stink from building up.
“The first thing you can do is freeze your compost in a paper bag for as long as you can before you put it in the bucket,” she wrote. “That means the decomposition process will start whenever you take it out of the freezer rather than right away. I have some customers who freeze their compost until the night before pickup and then put it out in their bucket, and it’s usually only just begun to defrost when I pick it up.”
Murphy also suggested balancing out moist food scrap with brown material, such as leaves or sawdust.
“When the moisture content in your compost is over a certain amount, oxygen can’t get in and the compost goes anerobic, creating methane. If your compost smells sulfuric, this is probably what’s going on,” she wrote. “Any kind of ‘brown’ you can mix into the bucket helps with this — dry leaves, shredded paper — but the most effective additive, if you can get some, is sawdust. Since sawdust is spectacularly dry, a little bit of it goes a long way in drying out the compost. You can also use sawdust to soak up stinky liquid in your bucket after you empty it. I call this ‘dry-cleaning’ the bucket.”
Lachman of Bootstrap Compost suggested padding the bottom of the container with brown materials such as coffee grounds, shredded newspaper, or leaves. But in the end, she noted, sometimes your container has just soaked up so much stink that it’s time to let it go.
“Sometimes it’s just time to replace it and start from scratch,” Lachman wrote in an email. “At the end of the day, garbage cans and recycling bins smell after a while and your compost bucket is no different.”
Since my container is somewhat virginal, I think it probably still has a few more rounds of composting left in it. Freezing my food waste probably isn’t an option, since my freezer is full to the brim with various rare (banana leaves) and mundane (butter) ingredients and can’t handle anything more. But instead of throwing in the towel, I think I’ll take the offered advice and try to stock up on sawdust and other brown materials to lessen the stench.
After all, in the words of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, “No mud, no lotus. Both suffering and happiness are of an organic nature, which means they are both transitory; they are always changing. The flower, when it wilts, becomes the compost. The compost can help grow a flower again.”
Maybe my stinky bucket is transitory as well.
East Providence, R.I., resident Grace Kelly is an ecoRI News reporter.
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